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A Quiet Little Thriller

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In 1971, William Peter Blatty published his novel, The Exorcist, which became a worldwide bestseller. Late in 1973, the film version, which I directed, appeared in theaters and enjoyed a comparable success. Ten years later, Blatty wrote another supernatural thriller called Legion. It has now been 27 years since the appearance of a new novel by him. Bill lives in Bethesda, Maryland, but he and I speak on a regular basis. This is the first time I've ever interviewed him, on the occasion of the publication of his suspenseful and powerful new work, the novel Dimiter.

Q. How is a reader familiar with The Exorcist supposed to react to Dimiter?

A. If they're looking for demons or spinning heads or anything you'd identify as horror, it's not that.

Q. You don't think they'll be disappointed?

A. Well, both novels are supernatural detective stories. On the surface, what the detective in Dimiter is investigating is a series of bizarre killings. But more important to me is a kind of 'cosmic homicide,' the problem of evil, of living in a fallen world. How can a compassionate and merciful God allow a hurricane that kills thousands of people? Or an earthquake that buries 200,000? Or cancer? Could it be that the moral evil that people do every minute of the day has an effect on the material world that causes these disasters? That may be one possible answer to the problem of evil. Don't blame God, blame ourselves.

Q. After The Exorcist, you could have written the same book over and over -- the possession of a 9-year-old in Cleveland or wherever. I don't find anything in Dimiter, not even the style of the writing, I don't see it as a typical Blatty novel.

A. There are not two novels of mine that are like one another. I don't sit down to write with any set of rules about novel-writing. I let my unconscious lead the way. Dimiter was the first time that method failed me. I wrote the first chapter, set in Albania, wrote another chapter, set in Jerusalem and the unconscious wasn't making the magic.

I put the book away, and then its form finally came to me decades later in one sweeping surge that lasted only a few seconds. When I wrote The Exorcist, I'd been a writer of off-the-wall farce. The idea of sitting down to write something not funny, but disturbing, like The Exorcist made me feel utterly inadequate.

Q. The reader should know Dimiter is not an Exorcist sequel. It doesn't have the same spiritual context. You've told me The Exorcist was consciously meant to be apostolic.

A. It's there sparingly, not overtly. It is there if you're looking for it, but with Dimiter, I set out primarily to write a quiet little thriller. There is an aura of the paranormal and I've tried to create the feeling that something out of the ordinary, even transcendent is going on.

Q. Do you still believe in a literal "force of evil" in human nature?

A. Billy, every culture in every part of the world, back to the beginning of recorded time has a tradition of belief in "an evil magician," someone who comes to earth to spoil the work of the creator. So yes, I think where there's that much smoke, there could be fire.

Q. Do you think Dimiter measures up to The Exorcist, as a piece of writing?

A. Without a doubt, it's the best writing I've produced. I can't surpass it. I know that.

Q. You haven't published a new novel in 27 years. Are you concerned that Dimiter might not resonate with readers today?

A. I'll admit that from its inception, it seemed as though this might be something beyond my reach. I had an immediate sense from the moment I got the idea that this was far beyond anything I had ever thought about or attempted. And it paralyzed me. I didn't know if I had what it takes to complete it.

Q. As I remember, this was true of The Exorcist as well.

A. When I started to write The Exorcist after years of writing only comic novels and screenplays, I didn't know if I could write a paragraph or even a sentence without a laugh in it someplace. I was afraid that when the book came out it would be treated without any respect whatsoever. Because of that intimidation and feeling of inadequacy, it took me ten months of writing and rewriting, working 14 or often 16 hours a day without a day off.

Q. How do you start the process? Do you first do an outline?

A. I've never outlined a book. I start writing usually between ten and eleven o'clock at night and I work until morning. If you make a rigid outline you're confining your unconscious, and so by writing at night, through what I call the dream time, I was allowing my unconscious to be available to me. When the idea for The Exorcist occurred, I had no plot. In fact I first thought of writing it as non-fiction.

Q. Is it fair to say that the idea for The Exorcist came from an actual case?

A. Not one specific case, but it was inspired by a case that occurred in 1949 when I was a junior at Georgetown. It was reported in a lengthy article on the front page of the Washington Post because the events began somewhere in Maryland. But the circumstances seemed so authentic and compelling I thought it would be a wonderful book to be written by somebody, someday. I frankly never thought it would be me. In later years, I decided to research it thoroughly, but The Exorcist is based on all the accumulated research I did on the subject.

Q. Dimiter seems more rooted in reality -- up to a point -- than your other books. What sort of research did you do?

A. The first part of the book is set in Albania. I never went there, but I interviewed a number of Albanians. It was the first country to declare itself an atheist state in the mid 1960s. That's no longer the case, but I remember sitting in your office in the winter of 1972, reading an article in the New York Times about a priest in Tirana, Albania who was executed by firing squad for baptizing a newborn child in a forced-labor camp. That was my core inspiration.

The second part of the book is set in Jerusalem and I spent months there in 1974, also in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Tel Aviv, Ramallah. I interviewed neurologists at Hadassah Hospital on ways to kill so that the deaths appeared natural. I spoke to members of the Israeli police force and former operatives of the Mossad and Shin Bet and I was able to interview Iser Harel, "the father of Israeli intelligence" who oversaw the capture of Adolph Eichmann.

Q. In light of what you're telling me, is it fair to call Dimiter a spy novel, in the tradition of say, Le Carre?

A. Dimiter isn't a spy. He's a deadly assassin, working for the US Government, who we first meet in Albania, then in Jerusalem, where he undergoes a kind of transformation.

Q. The demonization of a child in The Exorcist, which is very graphic in the novel and in the film, and now the torture of a suspected assassin in Albania in Dimiter, which is so graphically described -- how do you justify depicting so much brutality and perversion?

A. To whom do I have to justify it? It exists.

Q. But it's what you choose to write about. You could have continued to write comedies or a love story or children's books...Don't you feel books or films like this could lead people to commit violent crimes?

A. Bill, a psychologically disturbed person will find a reason to do something like that. If he doesn't find it in The Exorcist or Dimiter, he'll find it in Hopalong Cassidy. The Exorcist didn't cause anyone's mental illness or aberrations. When I write about violent acts, I'm not trying to appeal to a reader's debased sensibilities.

Q. I think there are readers who will find the torture sequence in Dimiter as graphic as the possession scenes in The Exorcist.

A. Every one of the scenes you refer to has been done and is being done somewhere in the world.

Q. Whenever I'm asked, "do you ever feel a "tinge" of regret at having portrayed some of the scenes in The Exorcist so graphically, "I usually say, "I didn't create the story, but I set out to film it as realistically as possible." But Bill, I don't think I would do it in the same way today.

A. What would you do?

Q. Try to leave more to the imagination.

A. Watching a film is different from turning the pages of a novel.

Q. You're the father of seven children. It gives you no pause that a lot of what you've written has blown people's minds? And that Dimiter is likely to do the same?

A. I have no evidence of my work having tampered with people's minds. A person who reads a novel or sees a film and then decides to douse himself or someone else with flames is a lunatic.

Q. Do you still believe in demonic possession and exorcism?

A. The research I've done convinces me there were 2 or 3 cases in the 20th Century in which the Catholic Church in the United States, after exhaustive investigation involving internal medicine and psychiatry, authorized the ritual of exorcism. It's extremely rare though there may be other unreported cases.

Q. The New Testament tells us that Jesus exorcised demons, but when the gospels were written there was no concept of psychiatry or behavior-altering drugs.

A. I don't think Jesus mistook for example "epilepsy" which was common in his day, for possession. It was extremely rare, then and now.

Q. Well, then what do you make of Father Gabriel Amorth, the official Vatican exorcist who claims to have performed over 7,000 exorcisms?

A. Father Amorth gives possession a bad name.

Q. Bill, he was appointed by the by the Pope.

A. Nobody's perfect.